POLITICS
04/02/2014 11:27 am ET | Updated Apr 02, 2014

Senate Advances Unemployment Bill, Showdown With House Looms

WASHINGTON -- The Senate advanced an extension of unemployment insurance Wednesday morning, setting up final passage as soon as Thursday, but the bill faces a showdown with the House of Representatives before it can become law.

By a vote of 61-38, the Senate invoked cloture on legislation that would retroactively pay benefits to the long-term jobless Americans who have been missing out on benefits for over three months. Six Republicans joined all Senate Democrats in supporting the bill: its five original Republican cosponsors -- Sens. Dean Heller (Nev.), Susan Collins (Maine), Rob Portman (Ohio), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska), and Mark Kirk (Ill.) -- and Sen. Kelly Ayotte (R-N.H.).

More than 2 million Americans have missed out on benefits since Congress let the federal Emergency Unemployment Program lapse in December. In place since 2008, the benefits went to workers after they used up the standard six months of compensation provided by states. The legislation reauthorizes the federal benefits, which give workers up to 73 weeks of total compensation, through May.

It will be up to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) to decide whether the lower chamber even considers the Senate's bill. In the past few weeks, Boehner has given little indication he intends to take up the legislation, calling it "unworkable" based on implementation concerns from state workforce agencies.

Heller, the bill's Republican co-author, blamed state administrators for making the issue of unemployment benefits more difficult in an already skeptical House.

"That's a shame if the reason it doesn't pass is because state administrators aren't on board, or say it's too difficult," Heller told The Huffington Post, adding that Labor Secretary Tom Perez said the bill was, in fact, workable. "I would hate to think that the reason this thing fails is because state administrators aren't willing to do their jobs."

But Heller wasn't ready to give up hope just yet, and said he plans to talk to House Republican leadership once the bill clears the Senate.

"I'll have to have a conversation and try to get to 'yes' instead of 'no,'" he said. "That's going to take some work and energy. I've just got to figure out what motivates the House."

Sen. Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) said Boehner should get with the program.

"This is not another bill that you can lock in the basement and throw away the key," Merkley said in remarks on the Senate floor before the vote. "This is a fundamental piece of legislation that affects the welfare of our families, the health of our economies, the strength of our communities, and it merits a vote on the floor of the House of Representatives."

The bill includes several reforms to federal unemployment insurance that Republicans requested. It would allow some workers to receive enhanced re-employment counseling and would ban millionaires from receiving benefits.

But Sen. John Cornyn (R-Texas), who voted against the measure, complained after the vote that Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) prevented Republicans from offering more amendments to the bill. He suggested the legislation doesn't really benefit the 3.8 million long-term unemployed.

"This legislation does nothing to help them other than perhaps to help pay them for a period of time that they are continuing not to be able to find work," Cornyn said.

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